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Colonial Elites: Planters and Land Nobility in 17th- and 18th-Century Brazil

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Please check back later for the full article.

Portuguese colonists carried their conceptions of how society should be organized to the Americas. Their ideal was to “live like a gentleman,” that is, to own land and command laborers in order to distance themselves from manual labor. Property was also essential, to provide them with time and resources to be active in local politics and to serve the Crown. They intended to reproduce in the New World the lifestyle of Portuguese provincial nobility. There were huge differences, however; in Brazil the elite lorded over enslaved persons, instead of peasants. The first elite families made their fortunes through the conquest and enslavement of Native Americans in the second half of the 16th century, but many of them did not manage to keep their power in the following decades, when the transition to enslaved African labor occurred. Above all, in the most dynamic areas, such as Pernambuco and Bahia, the first half of the 17th century was a period of flux in elite composition. By mid-century, though, a small number of families controlled most of the local offices, slowly fashioning themselves as local nobilities and wielding these claims to negotiate with the Crown and its representatives. Their preeminence was threatened by the rise of merchant power in the 18th century, boosted by the huge demographic and economic expansion derived from gold discoveries in the southeast and the development of an internal market. Nevertheless, the noble ideal didn’t lose its appeal—many rich merchants linked themselves to the old noble families through marriage and bought land and enslaved laborers to live up to the aristocratic model. Planter elites established wide patron-client networks to shore up their influence that encompassed even their enslaved property, but this strategy wasn’t always enough to withstand the test of time.